The other day I was talking to someone who has known BJ Penn for a long time and who compared him to Mike Tyson, not because he is a pigeon fancier, or broke, or mentally ill, but because there was a time when Tyson ran his own camp and consequently found himself among people who lacked the knowledge or standing to force him to work harder than he wanted to, and make sound choices. A fighter who never hears the word no is one certain not to live up to his gifts.
Among those from whom Penn doesn't hear that word often enough, it seems, are the UFC officials who have deemed his upcoming fight against Jon Fitch a title eliminator. This is fair enough in the sense that if Penn can actually take out Fitch, one of the three best welterweights in the world, he'll deserve a chance at the 170-pound championship. But you have to wonder just why he's near an eliminator at all.
Anyone who points out that Penn is something like the Nolan Ryan of fighting, someone whose legend is out of all proportion to what he's actually done because of the way he's done it, is sure to hear from a lot of angry people. Since I don't like to read emails written by people quivering with rage I won't do that, but I will ask you to consider a few facts.
Penn's last significant win at welterweight, his upset of Matt Hughes at UFC 46, came more than seven years ago. When the night began, George W. Bush was still in his first term in office, the Boston Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1918, and Georges St-Pierre had fought once in the UFC.
He also has a nearly unrivaled knack for losing significant fights. Of his 11 title fights, he's won fewer than half of them. One can say that he broke his rib in this fight, or that he caught bad decision in that one, but injuries and sketchy judging are a part of fighting. Great fighters are supposed to overcome them.
Most important, Penn is not actually a welterweight. This week, he said that he currently weighs about 165 pounds. Fitch, who's lost size recently due to adopting a pescetarian diet, weighs about 20 pounds more than that, an advantage he'll carry into the cage. Granting that their skills are, in the abstract, about equal, Fitch's extra weight is enough to make a great difference in the fight, especially given that his game is all about his punishing top control.
To get an idea of how badly disadvantaged Penn is at 170 pounds, forget his .500 record in the weight class and just look at what he's actually done there, as compared to what he's done in the 155-pound class.
At lightweight, Penn has outstruck his opponents 682-384, secured 26 takedowns to their 18, attempted eight submissions to their four, and passed guard 42 times while having his passed just seven. That's the record of a dominant fighter, an all-time great.
At welterweight, Penn has been outstruck 193-100, been taken down nine times while taking his opponents down twice, attempted five submissions while never having one tried on him, and had his guard passed a dozen times while passing eight. That's the record of someone being kicked around by stronger fighters.
Putting this another way, he outstrikes opponents two to one as a lightweight, while being outstruck two to one as a welter. He passes guard four-and-a-half to one at 155 pounds, while getting passed three to two at 170. There just isn't any reason at all, other than a single transcendent night a long time ago when he choked out Matt Hughes, to think that he's a top fighter at welterweight. Saying he's anywhere near the title mix is a bit of marketing trickery, a diversion meant to obscure that he's been beaten twice by the champions of each of his two weight classes and that he is 3-3 in his last six fights.
Here is where you might repurpose Samuel Johnson's famous line and say that for a man of his size to fight against top-level welterweights is a like a dog walking on its hind legs: It may not be done well, but you're surprised to find it done at all. Expecting him to beat an animal like Fitch or St-Pierre, you might say, is missing the point. The whole joy is to be found in the situation, in watching just how much brass Penn has, in watching him fight fearlessly against men on whom he has essentially nothing.
MMA is, though, not some variety of performance art. The point is to win actual victories, not moral ones. It's interesting to watch Penn go up a weight class or three and not be embarrassed, just as it would be interesting to, say, see Manny Pacquaio survive Andre Ward. It would be at least as interesting to see him fighting opponents against whom he's properly matched, running up wins, proving he's among the best in the world by what, and not how, he does.